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Lifting the night vale: an interview with Cecil Baldwin

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(photo courtesy of Cecil Baldwin)

Late last summer, only about a year since its debut, the podcast Welcome to Night Vale (recently written about here on PopMythology)  overtook This American Life for the top spot on iTunes.

It’s a remarkable achievement for such a young show. But on top of its widespread popularity with the general public, Night Vale has been passionately embraced by the LGBTQ community due to its healthy and non-sensational portrayal of the main character, Cecil Palmer, and his relationship with a scientist named Carlos.

We chatted recently with actor Cecil Baldwin, the voice of Night Vale, about fan response from within the LGBTQ community which seems to have partially driven the show’s success.

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What has been the response thus far from the LGBT community about the podcast?

CB: We’ve had a really amazing response from the LGBTQ community.  It’s great how people from seemingly all over the world have opened up and accepted our podcast and said how much they enjoyed it.  And the more I get to do live shows and meet people, it’s really awesome to see gay and lesbian couples come together to watch the show, that’s always really fun. The sort of more mainstream gay media hasn’t quite picked up on us yet; it’s not like we’re in Out Magazine or Advocate or anything like that. I don’t think we’re quite on their radar yet.  We’re a little too geeky but a little not gay enough, ya know?  It’s definitely a niche place that we occupy but the people who know us, and love us, really love us.  At this point, we’re trying to reach a wider audience.

How do you feel about the relationship between Cecil and Carlos being what most people focus on even though it’s not really mentioned all that much after the first date?

CB: Well, that’s the thing, I think it’s very important, and I think it’s a very large reason why a lot of people have become so enamored with Night Vale, but it’s definitely not the main point of the podcast.  I hope that the writing and the voice acting that I do and the ideas behind it are what people keep coming back for.  Because I think if we had a huge queer relationship but the writing was just really bad, I think people would eventually stop listening.  Eventually it would just be like, “Well, okay, it was really cute for a while but I think I’ve heard all I need to hear.” There has to be some substance there that makes you continue to listen week after week, month after month.

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(photo courtesy of Cecil Baldwin)

About a month ago the creators of the podcast (Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor) got an email about removing Cecil and Carlos’ relationship altogether. Do you think that if it actually were to be removed for any reason, the integrity of the podcast would be greatly altered or completely derailed?

CB: It’s interesting. I know of that email and there’s another Tumblr site that’s devoted to “taking the gay out of NV” and about how “there’s no reason why [Carlos] can’t be a woman.”

And it’s true. That’s kind of the point.  Like why couldn’t Carlos be a woman?  And Cecil be straight? Or Cecil be a woman and Carlos a man, etc.?  There’s no reason.  But what it does do is add another dimension of humanity to this podcast that is different, that is not of the main stream, that is interesting.  That is what it brings to this podcast by having two male characters in a relationship.  It adds texture, it adds humanity in a way that a lot of times you don’t get if you are just creating a sort of average run-of-the-mill ideas for things like this.

It would’ve been very easy for Joseph and Jeffery to write a love interest for Cecil as a woman, but it would’ve made the show less interesting. Also, as someone who is gay I appreciate that here is something that I feel like the gay community can hold up and say, “Look we have a hero, we have something to look at and say, yes, we are normal, we are accepted, this Cecil and Carlos relationship is just as normal as anyone else’s.”  And that’s what makes it interesting.

I don’t think we would be having this interview if Carlos was a woman.  I mean, maybe.  It would probably be a very different conversation, though. Hopefully, I would’ve still been loved by the geek community even without the Cecil-Carlos element but I don’t know. Maybe the fact that these two men are in a relationship is what adds that spark to Night Vale and has made it what it is.  There’s no way to tell.  I know that from my own point of view it’s more fun and just more interesting.  And more interesting makes it better art.

Just about all of the citizens of Night Vale like Carlos and Cecil and they’ve become the celebrity couple, but from the podcast it seems that homophobia is non-existent in that fictional town.  Is that something that’s been addressed or will be?

CB: I don’t know because I don’t deal with the writing so I can’t say yes or no to that. I would imagine that homophobia would be dealt with, which is interesting because we kind of have, in very subtle ways, dealt with it before. But we deal with it in metaphors and with simile and it may not be an active plotline, so I don’t know.

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(photo courtesy of Cecil Baldwin)

Does the fact that you yourself are a gay man affect the way you portray Cecil?

CB: Certainly, because here’s the thing: if I walked into a casting room and been handed a script by a casting director who was looking to create a new podcast and the character description was “radio host for a small desert community for a new sci-fi podcast, character is gay,” I guarantee you the casting director and everyone down the line would’ve found a way to make that character the most stereotypical gay person you can imagine to underline the point that “character is gay.”

But because it is just me, I just sort of behave as I normally behave or act as I normally act except on tape, or on microphone.  I bring my own humanity to this role; if Cecil is excited about something that’s how I get excited about something.  If he’s disapproving of something, it’s how I’m disapproving of something.  And that makes it very natural and makes it very human, so it’s less about creating a “gay character” and more about being a gay person.

Compared to TV shows and movies like Glee and Modern Family, shows where gay characters are very stereotypical, what do you think is different about Carlos and Cecil compared to other media?

CB: Oh gosh, I think it’s less about Carlos and Cecil’s relationship and more about the context in which the relationship exists.  Can you imagine Modern Family if it had dinosaurs and angels and a shadowy government agency and wasn’t a sitcom?  Because that’s what it is, a sitcom.  That’s the image and world they’re working in.  And that’s fine; it’s smart, cute, funny and pretty to look at but that’s what you get.

Night Vale is not a sitcom. It’s much more literary, it’s much more sci-fi, fantasy, horror. It’s got comedy as well which is where it kind of shares something with Modern Family and Glee. And it’s also a podcast rather than a TV show and so it allows people to listen and do their own work of imagining what these people look like, or when a scenario unfolds what does the scene look like.  People have to bring themselves to the show; they can’t just sit back and turn on the TV for an hour and watch passively because all the work has been done for them.

Can you imagine if Glee was a radio show, like they had their scripts in their hands and they sang in front of a microphone and you had no idea what any of these characters looked like?  It would drastically change how you would appreciated that show.  And I think that’s similar to Night Vale, we operate in a different world than all these other shows. Now how this relates to Cecil and Carlos, I think it allows people to bring themselves to that relationship.  Like it doesn’t matter if you’re not a gay man, you can still listen to show and because you empathize with Cecil, you empathize with Cecil in all aspects of his life from fighting off feral children to going out on a date with someone you have a crush on for the first time.  And I think that’s a lot of fun but it’s more because of the radio format than it is because of the connections you can make with queer characters in pop culture.

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Fan art by Max Kennedy (maxkennedy.deviantart.com)

So far Carlos has only been described as dark in skin tone.  How important was it for Carlos to be a person who is not white?

CB: It was important for Carlos to initially be an outsider in NV, a person the audience could connect with.  It was Carlos’ job to comment on the insane goings-on and say, “This isn’t right, you all realize that you are living in a place where this is not normal,” but everyone in NV accepts whatever thing it is as normal.  So really it had more to do with being an outsider, someone who is connected to the outside world, who sees things differently than the people around him.

I think Joseph and Jeffrey (the creators) just had a really strong commitment to making the cast of characters, not just Carlos and Cecil, but everyone being as diverse as possible.  Like you have coach Nazr al-Mujaheed and Roger Singh who is a Sikh.  When you only have words and names to use to paint your pictures, why not use the most interesting and evocative names and words to paint those pictures?  I think it came more out of having an interesting, diverse, world.

It could have been something like Scully and Mulder where you have a pretty white guy and pretty white girl falling in love.  That’s nice but it’s very bland.  And that’s so funny how it’s not mentioned but people picked up on it, and again it’s how people bring their own perceptions.  They’re like “I’ve decided to draw Cecil as Native American because that’s how I see him and his voice and his energy reminds me of so  and so.”  That’s the best part, is that people have to bring their own memories and imagination to the listening of the podcast. Having a diverse cast of characters is important, and also the more we do live shows it’s very important for us to work with other actors who are not just middle-aged white guys.  We’re trying to reach out and find actors to do live shows who can bring flavor to the podcast that we cannot, like Jasika Nicole — she’s an amazing actor but she’s also an amazing actor of color and an amazing woman.  And she brings that to her performance in a way that if it was all just me, I could not do it.  I cannot be a woman, and I cannot be a woman of color no matter how much I try.

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The cast and creators of the live show version of “Night Vale” (photo courtesy of Cecil Baldwin)

How do you feel about the influence Night Vale has had on the LGBT community as a whole?

CB: I love it.  I think it’s great.  Let’s say you’re like a 17 or 18-year-old kid and you’ve recently come out of the closet and you maybe have a girlfriend or maybe you don’t. You’re like “I’m a lesbian, now what?”  And you find this podcast and your friends have listened to it and whatnot.  And there’s a narrator that can offer you a little bit of hope and comfort, like you have the potential to have a happy normal life and relationship out there in this crazy, insane world where nothing is certain. Now imagine that you listen to this podcast every day or every month when it comes out and you make your parents drive you to go see it when it comes to the nearest city and on the way there you get your parents to listen to it.  Now you have multiple generations of family members listening to this podcast.  For the parents, maybe it reminds them of old Twilight Zone episodes or The Outer Limits. But they have the opportunity to listen to something that their children love and maybe they like it too.

I love it when parents bring their kids to see the show, either to Night Vale or now fans and their parents are also coming to see Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. I get to meet dad and the awkward teenage daughter and get to interact with both of them because this is something they’re getting to do together.  Night Vale is becoming something you can do with your kids that is hopefully interesting for parents as well. There’s a Tumblr out there of photographs of dads at One Direction concerts that’s just hilarious because here are these middle-aged men who are so disinterested in everything that’s going on and yet everyone around them is freaking out over 1D being onstage.  But I find that with Night Vale we engage the parents just as much.  And it’s starting to grow and I can feel it starting to grow.

When we were in California I met an entire family with mom and the kid from high school and the kid from college, and they drove down three hours and listened to NV all the way there, and it was a chance for them to listen together and be entertained as a family.  And what it does is it brings the family closer together.  And if you’re a queer kid and you’re trying to figure out where you fit in that LGBTQ spectrum, maybe it helps you to feel a little more brave and helps your parents to be a little more understanding.

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Fan art by Kate Leth (kateordiecomics.com)

Tell us an interesting bit of fan feedback that you’ve had.

A lot of people write to me and tell me they have trouble with insomnia or anxiety disorder and that listening to Night Vale helps calm them down.  They’ll say, “I used to have so much trouble sleeping at night but then I’ll put on Night Vale and it’s very calming, it’s very soothing and it helps me unwind at the end of the day so I feel like I’m getting a normal night’s sleep.”

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When not being the voice of Welcome to Night Vale, Cecil Baldwin is a regular performer with the New York Neo-Futurists and often appears in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, an hour long production of thirty short plays.  For show information visit New York Neo-Futurists, and for all things Night Vale visit Commonplace Books.

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About Clint Nowicke

Clint Nowicke
Clint is a graduate student at Eastern Kentucky University working on his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, focusing primarily on the Deaf community as well as the LGBTQ community.